St Laurence's Church, Chorley: Fat Faces and Empty Niches

Medieval church-builders were fond of gargoyles. These are stone-carved images of people, animals or mythical creatures peering down from walls and corners. It’s not always clear why they were built. The word comes from the French gargouille meaning throat or swallow, referring to their practical purpose of serving as water spouts, diverting rain water from dripping down the walls. Others, like those pictured at St Laurence’s Parish Church in Chorley, are mere decoration. They’re realistic and full of character; they may be depictions of real people known to the mason. The face of the fatter man, which seems to have been artificially stretched, may be a caricature, perhaps of the local bishop or priest. Other church buildings sport gargoyles that resemble dragons or demons. This may hearken back to even more primitive times in which it was thought that scary-looking faces would ward off evil spirits.

Keen-eyed visitors to medieval churches may also spot empty niches built into towers. They look like shelves. Upon them would once have stood images of saints, typically Mary or, in Chorley’s case, St Laurence. The sixteenth-century reformers, or if they’d been lax, seventeenth-century puritans, would have destroyed them with hammers and chisels. Against art, one might argue, this was criminal vandalism; against the gospel, the veneration of saints was obnoxious. Those images deemed to be unreligious were typically left unharmed. That is why the faces of ordinary folk and fat clerics survived, but Mary and Laurence were given the sack.